Top Ten Wine Questions
By Sunny Brown
During the course of frequently conducting wine tastings I am presented with many questions about wine. They range from the very basic to the very obscure, and are centered around everything from buying wine to serving it to general wine trivia. By the way, no I do not know who started calling the Sercial grape the “dog-choker,” but I can think of a few reasons why.
So in an effort to provide easy answers to the most frequently posed posers, here is a list of those questions along with the short versions of their answers. Or at least the shortest versions that I can provide, and those of you who read my articles know that I can ramble sometimes… But I digress.
Is it Syrah or Shiraz?
Believe it or not this is by far the question that I get the most. And to answer said question: Yes. Syrah and Shiraz are indeed the same grape, be it from the home of Syrah as we know it in the northern portion of the Rhône Valley in southeastern France, or from the new unofficial homes of Shiraz in Australia or Syrah in California. The term Shiraz is used in Australia the most, but also in South America, South Africa and sometimes in the United States as well.
This begs another question: Why? The folksy answer to Australia using the term Shiraz (and in wine there is always a folksy answer. That is part of the fun.) is that when a group of Aussie winemakers took a trip to the Rhône to get a feel for the vine, let’s just say they landed in Australia with less wine than they left France with, and the slurred version of Syrah was born. Others will say that the name Shiraz refers to the ancient Persian city of the same name, a possible birthplace of said grape variety. But where’s the fun in that?
The truth is that scores of grapes have numerous synonyms, some even have scores of them (I’m looking at you Tempranillo). Vines have spread throughout many isolated areas, through many different languages and cultures, and it is only natural for various names to evolve. Genetic testing is a new phenomenon, and was it not Shakespeare who penned “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?”
Will this wine age?
A toughy. The list of variables involved in determining the life span of any wine is long and varied, with just a few being type of wine, quality of the wine, quality of the producer and their track record regarding the longevity of their wines, quality of the vintage, and most importantly the storage conditions. Proper storage conditions will lengthen the life of any wine, just as improper conditions will shorten it. For more on this subject visit Wine Storage Conditions.
I have three suggestions here: 1) Seek thee out a reference. Your best source of info on this subject apart from trying the wine yourself is to consult your local wine store person or the many trade magazines, books, articles and websites that offer info on this subject. Often these opinions are formed through years of experience. 2) Try one today, and save the rest for tomorrow. Was the wine too tannic? Lay it down. Too soft? Pour it soon. Buying three bottles will allow a little experimentation now, yet still leave you with two bottles for the cellar. And last but not least: 3) When in doubt, drink it now! All but a tiny fraction of all the wine produced is best consumed within two years of vintage. Don’t be the guy that waited too long on that great bottle of wine.
Why are some wines so expensive, and does price equal quality?
Like all industries, the price for many wines comes back to the old equation of supply vs. demand. Some wines are made from such perfectly located vineyards, in such small amounts, or only in such excellent vintages that they will always command top dollar. Others have centuries’ worth of fame and mystique, not to mention hundreds of great wines as the reason behind the high prices. Many of these are well earned, many are not. There will always be wines whose price tag far exceeds its quality, and while it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, finding a great bottle of wine for a little money is part if the enjoyment.
Price does not equal quality, though it can be a good indicator. Most wineries that charge an arm and a leg for their wines are only going by what the market will bear. The wineries that charge too much are usually, but not always corrected by the market with slow sales, though it seems too many California wineries today want to charge $100 a bottle right out of the gate, with no history of great wines as a guarantee for future success.
There is so much info, where do I start?
A great question. Wine can certainly be a daunting experience, but it need not be so. There are many great books and magazines out there that will provide a great base of information to the burgeoning wine lover. But my best recommendation is this: We live in the information age, use it. Online resources can provide as much info as anyone one person could ever want, usually at no charge and in a format that is quick and easy to understand. Interactive info is always helpful, not to mention the great pictures and videos of wine country available at our fingertips. For more on the basics of wine please visit Wine Basics.
What’s the difference between “New World” and “Old World?”
These terms are thrown around in the wine industry like grapes at harvest time. Everywhere. Essentially this can be viewed in two ways: The first is location. New world wines refer to those created in Australia, New Zealand and both North and South America. Old world refers to Western Europe. But this also refers to wine style as well. New world wines are often thought of as being heavier in fruit, alcohol by volume and oak, where the old guard wines are thought of as being more restrained and balanced, with lower levels of alcohol, higher levels of acidity and more earthy tones. Location and style? Confused yet?
The reason these two concepts are related is that the location often is a good indicator of the style. A bottle of Cabernet from California will most likely feel more full and fruity than a bottle of Bordeaux made from the same grape. Conversely, the Bordeaux will likely be a better wine for the dinner table, with more natural acidity and earthiness, and a silky and well-balanced feel. These are not hard and fast rules, but a good indicator of the style of the wine before the cork has been pulled.
What the heck do all of these things on the label mean?
Wine labels can be confusing pieces of real estate. Lots of unfamiliar names, regions and even grape varietals dot the landscape. Sometimes they indicate an important piece of information, such as how sweet that German Riesling will be. Other times, they can be useless such as a name for the wine that the winery dreamed up as a sales pitch. Thanks, but the name of your second Cousins’ third wife while pretty does not provide info on the juice inside.
Most new world wines have the grape variety in large print on the front label. Many European wines do not, and their sales have suffered accordingly as the American market craves easy to read and understand info. But many of the greatest wines in the world will not have the name of the grape on the label. In many parts of the world the hallowed soil in which the grapes were born is far more important that the grape variety. These wines are not to be missed, and consulting one of the many resources available on this manner can be a great starting point. To get you started, here is a sample Burgundy label:
Decanting and glassware, what’s the big whup?
There are a couple of reasons for decanting a bottle of wine prior to serving. For younger wines an hour or so in the decanter can help to soften the fiery tannins. In older wines some fresh oxygen can help to revive a bottle of wine that has spent many years in a reductive state. A decanter will also help with reducing the amount of sediment that finds its way into the glass.
But what about the glassware? It has been proven in many a blind tasting that large crystal glassware that has been shaped for specific grape varieties can improve the release of aromas and flavors of that wine. Is it a dramatic difference? Probably not, maybe not even a noticeable one to most. But to some experienced tasters it can make all the difference in the world. Instead of rushing right out and spending a small fortune on the most fragile glassware ever made, I would suggest finding a quality all purpose crystal glass for both a white wine and one for reds. This will make a difference over a small and heavy glass but leave you with some cash left in your pocket for the wine. If the wine wasn’t very good to begin with, it matters not whose name is on the bottom of the glass. For more on glassware and decanting wine visit The Home Sommelier.
What is wrong with this wine?
It is a simple fact that wines can be destroyed or at the very least maimed by a number of conditions that range from poor storage to microscopic amounts of various chemical compounds. The most common is TCA, a chemical compound that is commonly referred to as cork taint and will cause your wine to smell of a moldy basement or wet cardboard. But this is just one example. Other examples range from Oxidation in which the wine will smell of sherry or almonds, to Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that causes barnyard-esque aromas and flavors, to too much Sulfur, which will add egg or burning match smells.
Sometimes these faults are caused in the winery, other times it may have occurred in transport, and still others they could not be helped. If you find a fault in your wine, feel free to send it back. Most wine stores or restaurants are all too familiar with the faults that can occur in a bottle of wine, and would rather have you get something that you enjoy than struggle on with drain cleaner. For more on the faults that can occur in a bottle of wine visit Waiter, there's a flaw in my wine!
How do I know value when I am looking at the label?
The hard answer to this is: You can’t. Just like in life, in wine there are no guarantees. There are ways to improve your odds though, and the best of these are combinations of factors that can move you from the “blind stab in the dark” category to the “well-educated guess” area. If you choose a wine from a country known for producing high quality wines at low prices (Australia, Spain, South America), add to this a well-respected producer, and sprinkle in the fact that it is from a good vintage and what you have is probably a great bottle of wine. Again, not a stone cold lock, but something I would bet on.
Selecting a wine is often like solving a puzzle. The more information at your disposal the better, and the more clues that you can decipher the better your chances will be. Thankfully there are many trade publications and websites such as Winegeeks.com that provide wine reviews and resources to help you along the way. I implore you not to take these as gospel, as they are opinions only! But one more informed opinion is better than none!
How long will the wine keep after it is opened?
Without some sort of preservation technique, one can expect their opened wine to begin to change immediately. For the first day or so some changes are welcome, as hard and tannic wines will generally soften. But bear in mind that fresh and fruit forward wines are at their best when they are first opened, and it can be a quick downhill run from there. On the second day some wines may actually be better, provided they were recorked the night before. But on most the fruit will start to fade, and any acidity in the wine will become more pronounced. By the third day some wines will be gone, and only a select few will still resemble their former cork-intact selves. Anything after that and well, it may still be wine, but enjoyable? Hmm.
There are several ways to prolong the life of your opened wine. Various gas systems create a barrier between the wine and the oxygen that will shorten its life. Vacuum system work in a similar manner. The old trick of placing your wine in the fridge overnight, even the reds, can also help to prolong their life. The cooler temperatures slow down the oxidation process. Think of these as a band-aid, not a cure, as any non-fortified wine will eventually spoil once it is opened.
There you have it. Just a few of the many questions we receive on a regular basis about the great mystery that is wine. The two pieces of advice I give more than any other about wine are to: 1) Enjoy the info. There are so many fun and interesting tidbits out there that one could study everyday for the rest of their life and not cover them all. 2) Keep an open mind. Wine is an adventure. Live it and love it. There will always be a new challenge just on the other side of the vineyard.